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Responding to RFPs — Tips for Suppliers


November 11, 2009


Matthew D. Peters
Joel Ramsey
Catherine M. Samuel

Having explored the ways customers can improve their RFP processes in the past three editions of the TLQ, we now turn to look at the supplier side of the equation. In this edition, we discuss responding to RFPs and set out some tips for improving the quality of supplier proposals.

RFPs are issued for all manner of products and services ─ from photocopy paper to construction projects, IT services and complex business process outsourcing initiatives. At the simple end of the procurement spectrum, customers are usually seeking the best price. As the complexity of the project increases, so will the evaluation criteria, and the quality of your proposal can help ensure that your solution receives full consideration by the customer.

Follow the Rules

Each RFP sets out specific rules regarding the RFP process that should be followed to avoid jeopardizing your proposal. For example, even though a supplier may have an existing relationship with the customer, if the RFP dictates that all questions should be directed in writing to a particular individual within the organization, don’t try to circumvent that process by calling your usual business contact. To do so may be perceived as giving an unfair advantage and could result in disqualification, depending on the particular RFP rules.

The RFP will usually set out how proposals should be organized and how they will be evaluated. Avoid the urge to get creative ─ follow the layout requested by the customer. If specific certifications or bond requirements are requested, ensure those are satisfied and submitted with the proposal.

Ask Questions

If something is unclear or further information is required to respond to a specific item, seek clarification and ask questions. Certain items may have been overlooked by the customer and questions may help with defining requirements. When crafting questions, keep in mind that in most RFP processes any questions and answers will be distributed to all proponents who received a copy of the RFP.

Respond to all Requirements

It is important to respond to every requirement in the RFP, especially in any technical response section. Failure to respond to a requirement may disqualify your proposal. Assign someone to review the proposal before submission to ensure that nothing has been missed.

Be sure you pay close attention to the RFP requirements — are they "mandatory" (i.e., must be included in order for your proposal to receive consideration) or "desirable" (i.e., important to the customer)? Expressly address all mandatory requirements and give the customer sufficient information to evaluate the response. If the evaluation criteria ascribe more weight to particular sections of the RFP, emphasize those sections in your response. Desirable requirements are those that are above and beyond the minimum RFP requirements ─ "value-adds" can be highlighted and are often a basis upon which the customer differentiates among proposals.

If your solution or performance is dependent on the customer providing certain infrastructure or other deliverables, or carrying out certain steps, make that very clear in the proposal. If you have an alternative solution or idea than is sought in the RFP, ensure that specific RFP requirements have been satisfied and then offer the alternative solution.

Clarify Pricing

If your proposal indicates that the solution meets certain or all requirements, including "desirable" items, the customer will expect that those requirements are included in the pricing, unless otherwise specified. Specify which components or capabilities of the goods or services are included in the price. If there are any components or services that involve additional fees, clearly state this in the proposal.

Ensure that the pricing offer has an expiry date (which may be as specified in the RFP) and that it is expressly identified in the proposal. If pricing is subject to any adjustment, such as in accordance with CPI, specify the particular reference index and identify whether it applies to all pricing or just certain components such as labour costs.

Clearly articulate all of the assumptions on which the pricing is based; these will often be derived from information provided by the customer.

Use Defined Terms

In an understandable but misguided attempt to make the proposal less repetitive and more interesting to the reader, some suppliers write the same thing in many different ways. This can cause confusion and ambiguity, and can actually annoy the reader. To keep your proposal as clear and concise as possible, use terminology and phrases consistently, especially where responding to a technical requirement or specification in the RFP. Use only one term to describe something throughout your proposal. Either define the term on its first use, or include a glossary to capture defined terms.

With a complex procurement, prepare and distribute drafting guidelines to proposal team members as early as possible. The guidelines can include defined terms that are to be used in the proposal. These terms should mirror, where possible, the terminology used in the RFP. This will help reduce the time required for review and redrafting the proposal for consistency. The guidelines can also include the RFP instructions to proponents and any other advice that might be helpful in preparing the proposal.

Avoid Overselling

Depending on the terms of the RFP, the proposal can be contractually binding, so words need to be chosen carefully given their contractual meaning. Below are a few specific drafting suggestions:

Avoid Use
"ensure" "guarantee" and similar words "help confirm" or similar
"best efforts" unless you really intend
to use all means necessary to achieve something
"commercially reasonable efforts"
"will meet the customer’s requirements" "will meet agreed contractual requirements"

Prepare Early and Stay on Track

Each RFP is unique and will contain different rules and requirements ─ even when dealing with the same organization, don’t assume that the rules applicable to one RFP will be the same for the next. It goes without saying that it is important to carefully read each RFP upon receipt and make note of any special requirements.

RFP timelines are important and will be strictly enforced. Prepare early ─ don’t leave the drafting until the day before the proposal is due. Give yourself extra time at the end to proofread, print and bind proposals.

With a complex RFP where input from multiple people within the organization is required to prepare the proposal, consider creating a project plan and build in some extra time at various checkpoints in the proposal process. If a legal review is required, confirm the time required to complete a comprehensive review of the relevant portions of the proposal, and at which stages of the process. Also, appoint a proposal project manager with primary responsibility for overseeing the process, including compiling various portions of the proposal and pulling it together.

Preparing an RFP response can be a costly endeavour involving numerous resources. Investing some time in organization and planning upfront will result in a smoother internal process and yield a higher-quality proposal with better prospects of being selected.